A Patch of Yellow


For many years Alastair Johnston kept a post office box at the College Avenue station in Berkeley, and one afternoon, in 1987, I drove him over there to retrieve his mail.
    On the way out of the parking lot I noticed a woman struggling to extract herself from a boxwood hedge that separated the postal property from the sidewalk. She looked as if she had spent the night there and I said as much. "Christ," Alastair said, looking up from the pile of mail in his lap, "It's Lucia."
    And so it was. I pulled the truck to the curb, and we helped Lucia out of the hedge. She had indeed spent the night, or most of it, there, and she was in bad shape. She'd been in her clothes a long time. There were leaves in her hair, dirt under her fingernails, and her face was scratched, but particularly prominent was that stunned, uncertain stare that anyone who has journeyed a station too far with the alcools knows all too well, a state of nerves which its victims have in common with a dog who finds that his trusted mistress has enticed him to the veterinarian's stainless steel table. The booze has absconded with everything -- energy, physical presence, articulation, self-control, most or all of recent detail -- and left behind an ashen husk.
    On the other hand, as Lucia herself once wrote, "Anybody says he knows just how someone else feels is a fool."
    But at least she recognized us. Two younger men, friends if not acolytes, and Alastair, younger than myself, not too much later to publish her Safe and Sound. But if Lucia was embarrassed sufficiently for all three of us, I must stipulate that, for our part, Alastair and I were only concerned for her welfare, and affected neither judgment nor pity. Needing the help and knowing it, Lucia accepted the offer of a lift to her place on Alcatraz.
    But she refused to get into the cab of the truck with us, and no entreaty would change her mind. Despite our protestations she clambered over the side rail, which, given her various ailments, must have cost her considerable effort if not outright pain, and fell into the truck bed alongside a shovel and a hank of rope. In this state, more or less recumbent, Lucia was conveyed the ten or twelve blocks home. Once arrived, politely insistent that she was going to make it, but in fact requiring some assistance to slide over the dropped tailgate, she thanked us and disappeared through the front door of her apartment building.
    Jesus, one can imagine her muttering as she labored up the inside staircase, I'm supposed to be setting an example for these kids.

    I didn't see Lucia again until Christmas, six months later. But about three months after the hedge I received a black-and-white postcard from Auteuil, the 16th Arrondisement of Paris, showing a monument at the site of the Weil home, demolished long since, but which, not long after its demise, had been metamorphosed and consecrated forever by Marcel Proust as his family's summer retreat, "Combray". After a bit of scrutiny, for the handwriting was shaky, I realized that the postcard had been sent by Lucia Berlin.
    It had French postage on it and everything.
    Three months later, Lucia called to invite us for Christmas and she told me the story.

    Completely mortified, Lucia had dragged herself up the stairs to her apartment. After a long, hot shower and a brief phone call, she went back down to the street and took a bus straight to a detoxification clinic in Oakland.
    The detox experience is detailed in any number of Lucia's stories, printed and otherwise; "Her First Detox," for example, in the collection Homesick.

The food is good, but cold. You have to get your own tray off the cart and carry it to the table. Most people can't do that at first, or they drop it. Some of the men shook so bad they had to be fed, or they just bent down and lapped up their food, like cats."

    Thirty days later she returned home clean and sober, determined to make a fresh start, and with no idea how to go about it. But the key still worked in the lock. Good. And there was such a heap of mail she could hardly open the door against it. As Lucia would be the first to point out, these two things were more than most of the people she'd been in detox with had to look forward to.
    She left the pile on the floor while she took stock. In the short duration of the blackout bender that finished with her in the hedge, she'd drunk herself out of whatever job or jobs and money she'd had, and perhaps various relationships, too. Despite a month of thinking about it, she didn't really know. Her sons, to be sure, all four of them, had come to see her in detox -- another comfort most of her dessicating compatriots lacked. Nevertheless, she remembered nothing of what had happened that night, or those nights, a month earlier.
    The rest of that train of thought, not unexpected but too depressing to embroider, which she'd already been fretting over for a month, she dismissed, and turned her attention to the mail. Most of the heap was junk circulars, and some of it was bills of course, but there was correspondence from various beloved faraway friends, too, which she set aside for later, more deliberative consideration.
    Amongst all this stuff an envelope from the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C. turned up, the sight of which reminded Lucia that she had applied for a writer's grant nearly a year earlier. The envelope was very thin, however, and Lucia entertained little doubt that it contained anything but a chilly refusal couched in a brief elaboration about how heartening it had been for the panel of distinguished judges to receive tens of thousands of interesting applications and compelling writing samples from so many worthy artists whose efforts comprised a nurturing fluid running up and down the backbone of the American culturescape. She enjoined herself against the fantasy of some Deus ex machina lowering from a threatening sky a mailed, as it were, fistful of cash, a greeny salvation. Rejection, any kind of rejection, was precisely what she didn't need in that moment. This was happening on the very threshold, after all, of her first twilight -- and evening, night, midnight, 3:45 a.m. insomnia, dawn -- alone and on her own in a month. It was the first night of the rest of her life. It was Easy Does It.
    She shook off the not-quite subconscious illusion of a pending miracle and tossed the unopened envelope into the trashcan already full of Safeway fliers and propaganda from a missed election and invitations to join Triple-A and AARP and The Berkeley Rowing Club, and resumed sorting the odd bits of interesting mail from the much greater proportion of useless mail. Not until she'd finished the task did she just sit there, in the kitchen, thinking about it.
    She got up to make a cup of coffee. She listened to it brew as she sat in the window and searched the lightwell for -- what? Budding hawthorn? A scent of lilac? A forgotten strophe of Neruda? The memory of blooming aromo? And the more she thought about it, coffee in hand now, the more a modest voice politely demanded her attention, though it was nearly drowned out by the louder one clamoring for the exigency of getting on with her life. Everything in the refrigerator, for example, would have to be tossed. Except the mustard. Dijon mustard can take a month's desuetude -- can't it? The clothes she'd worn for her date with the hedge, for another example, lay right where she'd left them on the bedroom floor. Had the hedge tried to undress her? Stop giggling, this is serious. The clothes and the bedding too needed washing with plenty of detergent but that would require a lot of quarters and a trip to the laundromat, an existential threat more or less equivalent to that of 3:45 a.m. insomnia. Perhaps it would be better to burn the stuff? Yes. A sip of coffee. Perhaps burned.
    It took a while to find it. There were quite a few useless and more or less identical envelopes all around it, 3-7/8" x 8-7/8" and very thin. She pretty much had to go through the entire trashcan of rejected junk mail all over again. More than once she questioned what she was trying to prove, what was the use, and laughed at herself aloud, down on her hands and knees on the kitchen floor with a cup of coffee, looking for a pot of gold. The linoleum needed to be mopped, she noticed, probably with that stuff they use to clean bricks. Hydrochloric acid? And there was a cork under the refrigerator. Not a screwtop. Must be a previous tenant's.
    She found the envelope from the National Endowment for the Arts and a good thing, too, for inside were a respectful letter and a check for twenty-five thousand dollars -- I like to spell it out -- both of them inscribed to Lucia Berlin. And no, I have no idea what that letter said. Lucia forgot to tell me, and I forgot to ask. Something about further accretions to the American culturescape, no doubt.
    One might imagine how the atmosphere of that modest apartment across Alcatraz from a gas station, in the frost on a window pane of which she'd once written and erased the name she wanted no one to know, while hearing a radio in a car parked below playing "Polka Dots and Moonbeams", changed. How the very ionization of its stale airs must have reversed! "If I'd had a heart, it would have attacked me."
    The plane ticket to Paris was the first thing she purchased, the way I recall the story. Didn't shoes, for just one example, come from Paris? So new shoes could easily come a little later, after Le Aérogare de Charles de Gaulle, after the leisure afforded by a cup of vervein tea sipped very slowly at a little table on a sidewalk in the Sixth. I like to spell it out. But I may be wrong about the sequence. Lucia Berlin was perfectly capable of parceling a lot of that money among various needy entities before she left. At any rate the first word I had of this rather abrupt turn of fortune came in the form of that postcard from Auteuil, and I treasure this story about Lucia, perhaps above all of the many in my trove.

    Although, here's another one. Much later, when my difficult father, well into his seventies, had briefly walked out on my difficult stepmother, swearing that this time it was divorce for sure, Lucia said, "Jim, why don't you introduce him to me? If things work out, I could be your mother."
    Christmas that year was special, and Lucia invited a number of people over to the Alcatraz apartment. There were food and presents. I think all four of her sons were there, with various significant others, and Huey Newton showed up with his wife looking mighty sharp. We had a fine time. Later, when the crowd had thinned, the conversation got on to Proust. Lucia had made a gift to herself of the then-new Random House translation of Remembrance of Things Past, three gray-jacketed hardbacks in a matching slipcase. Discovering that hardly anybody else there was aware of the passage, she asked me to read aloud the death of Bergotte, and I sat on the living room floor and did so. Some in attendance got pretty misty-eyed, and why not -- it's a fine moment in an amazing work, and Christmas was upon us. I want to quote just the end of it here. In the present context the reader will quickly see that a couple of substitutions -- her and she for him and he; stories for books; Berlin for Bergotte -- make for a thoughtful recitation. "The patch of yellow wall" refers to a detail in Vermeer's "View of Delft". This translation, by the way, is from the C.K. Scott Moncrieff-descended Andreas Mayor & Terence Kilmartin/Joanna Kilmartin/D.J. Enright translation & revision of 1999, which is based on the authoritative this-is-it/adios/no-more-surprises 1989 Pleiade edition of A la recherche du temps perdu, either or both of which excellent works one can hope Lucia to have managed to notice in her final years.

He was dead. Dead for ever? Who can say? Certainly, experiments in spiritualism offer us no more proof than the dogmas of religion that the soul survives death. All that we can say is that everything is arranged in this life as though we entered it carrying a burden of obligations contracted in a former life; there is no reason inherent in the conditions of life on this earth that can make us consider ourselves obliged to do good, to be kind and thoughtful, even to be polite, nor for an atheist artist to consider himself obliged to begin over again a score of times a piece of work the admiration aroused by which will matter little to his worm-eaten body, like the patch of yellow wall painted with so much skill and refinement by an artist destined to be for ever unknown and barely identified under the name Vermeer. All these obligations, which have no sanction in our present life, seem to belong to a different world, a world based on kindness, a world entirely different from this one and which we leave in order to be born on this earth, before perhaps returning there to live once again beneath the sway of those unknown laws which we obeyed because we bore their precepts in our hearts, not knowing whose hand had traced them there -- those laws to which every profound work of the intellect brings us nearer and which are invisible only -- if then! -- to fools. So that the idea that Bergotte was not dead for ever is by no means improbable.
   They buried him, but all through that night of mourning, in the lighted shop-windows, his books, arranged three by three, kept vigil like angels with out-spread wings and seemed, for him who was no more, the symbol of his resurrection.

    In her perfectly marvelous memoir, Monsieur Proust, Celeste Albaret records that, when Proust himself died, a bookshop just up the Boulevard Hausmann from his next-to-last apartment did just as he'd imagined, substituting for the works of Bergotte the volumes of A la recherche du temps perdu.
    I suppose it's reassuring to think that, on certain shelves around the world, Lucia Berlin's collections of stories are similarly treasured, as surely the symbols of her own resurrection, when one re-reads them, as they are affirmations of one's faith in the ephemeralities of writing.
    That would be a good thing if only because, otherwise, for so long as we ourselves last, perhaps it is a comfortless truth of the universal tendency toward disorder that "The dead exist only in us." There's that Proust fellow, again. Alive, her kindness, her sincere wish to do good, her perseverance through unimaginable setbacks, her outrageous humor, her modest self-deprecation, itself a great well-spring of her humor, those amazing eyes, her extraordinary generosity to other writers, and, yes, her marvelous talent as a writer, Lucia Berlin did indeed set an example for other people, young ones among them, and certainly for that much smaller (one can hope) subset of humanity, other writers.
    The stories will continue to speak to us, in Lucia's voice, when no one else cares to. Or can.

            -- Jim Nisbet